Education Politics

A measure related to the protection of free speech on college campuses is advancing to the Kentucky House floor.

The House Education Committee approved House Bill 254 Tuesday. The measure would further clarify First Amendment protections and regulate the use of college free speech zones that prohibit spontaneous demonstrations outside of specific areas on campuses.

University students who testified in favor of the bill say those zones restrict speech that spans the political spectrum.

“Policies establishing these quarantine zones have been used by campus administrators across the country to prevent students from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution, information about promoting a vegan diet, information about promoting gun rights, and information about protesting the National Security Agency,” said Northern Kentucky University law student Sebastian Torres.

Some lawmakers raised concerns that the bill does not include exceptions that would allow colleges to prohibit sexual harassment or hate speech.

“I would hope that as you work on this bill, that you would include racial equity issues in here,” said Representative Reginald Meeks (D-Louisville), as he abstained from the vote on the bill.

The students who testified in favor of the bill argued that campus limits on free speech can have a chilling effect and restrict discussion between people who hold opposing viewpoints.

“I sincerely understand that the free speech zone seems tempting as a way to quarantine hateful rhetoric,” said University of Kentucky student Michael Frazier in support of the bill. “However, the reality is that when we quarantine any person on campus, we quarantine and limit our own ability to respond.”

The measure includes a provision to ensure that free speech is generally allowed in widely-accessible, outdoor areas of a campuses. Colleges and universities would still be able to give certain spaces priority for demonstrations. Campus administrators could also continue to place restrictions on permits for demonstrations, so long as permits do not prohibit spontaneous assemblies or outdoor distribution of pamphlets. Under the bill, any person who believes their right to free speech has been violated by a university would be able to bring a cause of action.

Representatives for several Kentucky universities told the committee they believe their schools’ policies already comply with the First Amendment and the draft bill. However, a spokesperson for the University of Kentucky said the University is not opposed to the measure.

The bill now heads to the House for further discussion and a vote.

Liz Schlemmer is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.